The first thing you see as you arrive at the Herstmonceux Estate in East Sussex is not the moated fairytale castle that you expected but the green-domed roofs of the observatory science centre. Intrigued? You will be!
You are probably wondering where the castle is and why the first thing you see is some weird buildings straight out of a sci-fi movie! Well here’s the answer.
In 1958 Herstmonceux became the official new site of the Greenwich Royal Observatory. London’s light pollution meant that Greenwich was no longer the best location to have an observatory and so Herstmonceux, with its dark skies, became the Royal Observatory’s new home.
Over the years, light pollution and climate change meant East Sussex was no longer the best place for the Royal Observatory. In 1984 the world-famous Isaac Newton Telescope was moved to the Spanish island of La Palma where the dark skies were perfect for observing the solar system.
Over the years the observatory was used less and less and in 1990 was moved to Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy.
The Observatory Science Centre is a popular place to visit for a family day out in Sussex. Kids will love getting hands-on with the interactive objects in the science centre and will learn lots about forces, nature and the solar system.
The Fairytale Castle
Of course, while the observatory is fascinating, it is the fabled Herstmonceux Castle that has brought you to this post. So carry on reading and find out about this magical fairytale castle deep in the East Sussex countryside.
Constructed in the 15th century, the castle sits in 300 acres of woodland and formal walled gardens. It also happens to be one of the only brick castles of its age in England that is still intact. A perfect example of a medieval English castle, on a warm summer’s day, there’s nowhere else better to be!
Formal gardens, woodland walks, nature trails, tea rooms and a visitor centre are all waiting to make your acquaintance. The castle currently operates as an International Study Centre, so the public cannot enter unaccompanied.
History of Herstmonceux Castle
The romantic moated setting and magnificent stone bridge undoubtedly make Herstmonceux Castle, pronounced herst-mon-zoo, one of the most beautiful fairytale castles in Europe.
Before you step through the enormous wooden portcullis gate, look upwards. Can you spot the Fiennes coat of arms on the wall?
Like most medieval castles, it has had its fair share of owners and has gone through good times and bad. Sir Roger Fiennes was the first owner and close ally of King Henry V and Henry Vl. Fiennes also owned Hever Castle, which subsequently became the childhood home of Anne Boleyn and is one of the most beautiful castles in Kent.
Fiennes was granted permission by the king to alter his original manor house and turn it into the fairytale castle we see today.
The castle was left to decay in the 18th century and looked like something from a Gothic horror, with ivy growing over its exterior.
Thankfully in 1932, Sir Paul Latham, a member of Parliament, brought life back to Herstmonceux and added whimsical luxuries to the grounds, such as the folly house and a swimming pool!
The castle and grounds are now privately owned by Dr Alfred Bader and used as an international study campus by Queen’s University, Canada.
Did you spot the coat of arms above the castle entrance? If so, continue along the pathway through the cloisters and arrive at the Elizabethan walled garden.
Elizabethan Walled Garden
Stroll along the yew tree-lined promenade and imagine a time in history when the gentry of that era frequented these stunning gardens. Numerous flower and plant species line the garden’s four Grade ll listed walls and add a pastel backdrop to the red-bricked castle facade.
There are two manicured lawns in the Elizabethan garden; the Croquet Lawn and Queens Walk. They are bordered by privet hedges and sweet-scented flowers and herbs such as lavender.
Sundial and Rose Garden
You may be surprised to see various sundials scattered amongst the rose bushes in this formal garden area. These are a reference to the time in history when the Greenwich Royal Observatory was at Herstmonceux.
Centre stage in the garden is John Flamsteed’s statue. This Royal Astronomer established Greenwich Observatory in the late 17th century.
If you haven’t been to Greenwich before, it is an exciting place to visit on a day out in London. As well as the Royal Observatory, you can walk in Greenwich Park and visit the National Maritime Museum. When you are ready to eat or shop, you can check out Greenwich’s boho vibe at its markets and cafes.
The beautiful rose garden showcases many different rose varieties and is a splash of colour and scent amidst the sculptures.
If you like African art, you will enjoy the short sculpture walk, which showcases abstract works of art.
In an area used as a swimming pool in the 1940s, this garden showcases plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s works. This is a nod to the academic link the castle now has with Queen’s University in Canada, which uses it as a University study centre.
My favourite area on the castle grounds is here, and it is the butterfly garden. Planted with flowers and evergreens to attract the 43 native butterfly species in Sussex, the delicate pastel shades combine perfectly to create a beautiful space.
If you like exploring nature, you will love the formal gardens and acres of woodland waiting to be discovered. Follow the nature trails, and if like me, you enjoy reliving your childhood take a moment to swing beneath the canopy of the oak trees.
You can also follow the trails to the magical garden, an area with red Japanese maple trees and the wildflower meadow. A five-acre meadow promoting a wide range of native wildflowers to attract insects such as butterflies and bees.
The Folly and Garden at Herstmonceux
You will love discovering the 1930’s folly created by Sir Paul Latham, owner of the castle from 1933-46. From the outside, the house looks normal; however, when you walk through the door, it is a complete shell inside.
But you may wonder what a folly is. They were structures on country estates in the late 19th century built purely for aesthetics rather than serving a purpose. The more elaborate the creation indicated the wealth of the landowner. Follies could range from designs such as this one to pyramids and temples!
Before you enter the castle’s formal gardens, why not have a go at completing the rope maze? On my visit, families with young children were having a great time trying to work it out.
The Apothecary Garden
Back in the formal gardens, don’t miss seeing the Apothecary garden. Raised planters contain herbs that would have been used as medicinal remedies or in cooking.
Plant labels offer the name and description of each herb and its use. They also answer questions about where some of these herbs got their names; it is an interesting area to check out.
If you have brought a picnic with you, then a lovely place to sit and enjoy it is the area near the Long Border, just outside of the walled garden. Picnic benches positioned within a long bank of yew trees and beside a wall of trailing clematis make this the perfect place to rest.
The long border has more African art sculptures within its flower borders, leading to the magnificent 300-year-old sweet chestnut trees that stand by the castle’s side entrance.
Before you leave the castle grounds, head to the visitors centre and find out more about Herstmonceux Castle and the surrounding area. With over 600 years of history, Herstmonceux is an interesting and beautiful place to spend a day in East Sussex.
Need to Know Information
Herstmonceux Castle and Gardens, Wartling Road Entrance, Hailsham, East Sussex, BN27 1RN
The nearest train station is Polegate. You will then need to catch a taxi the rest of the way.
Entry prices: £8 for adults / £3.50 for children under 18 years
The formal gardens are wheelchair accessible, and dogs are allowed on a lead.
Herstmonceux hosts an annual Medieval Festival showcasing England in the middle ages. This huge summer event is held on the castle grounds and has jousting and falconry displays, recreations of medieval life in England and much more. Dates will be listed on the Herstmonceux Castle website.
I received complimentary tickets to Herstmonceux Castle and Grounds; however, all opinions about this visit are my own.